I knew immediately that touring Gettysburg with Phil Lechak, a licensed battlefield guide, would be a treat. I felt I had a decent handle on the history of this legendary destination but quickly learned that many things he shared were not in any history book I had ever read.
Fought 157 years ago, from July 1-3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg began when Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the northern states. His goal was to string together victories, crush northern morale, and gain recognition of the Confederacy in Europe. The campaign ended after intense fighting and the failure on the final day to break the Federal line with a doomed all-out offensive known as Pickett’s Charge. There were 50 major battles with about 100 other significant encounters during the American Civil War and one of the most important engagements occurred on the flowing green fields and rocky hilltops of this quiet Pennsylvania town just 86 miles (136 kilometres) from Washington, DC.
Lechak took me to The Copse of Trees, a landmark famous for being the target that Lee selected for the assault. Just to the right of the trees is the farmstead of Abraham Bryan, a free African-American widower who found his home situated in the center of the Union defensive position atop Cemetery Ridge.
“The Virginia units of Pickett’s Charge hit at the copse of trees and to the south of it,” Lechak said. “North of the copse are the Tennessee and Alabama troops and further away, on the Bryan property, the North Carolinians and Mississippians. It was here that these troops were repulsed by Union forces. So Pickett’s Charge — and the dreams of the Confederacy — died on a Black man’s land. It’s ironic.”
How ironic indeed. This was the first time I had ever heard of the historic tidbit and I can assure you as a Black man it put a broad smile on my face.
Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War and the high water mark of the Confederacy. Union casualties were numbered at 23,000, while the Confederates had lost around 28,000 men — more than a third of Lee’s army. The war would continue for two more years before Lee’s eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
A Fight to the Death Over Slavery
The American Civil War (1861-65) was fought between northern states loyal to the Union and southern states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The driving force of the conflict was slavery, namely the southern states belief they had the right to own people. As Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens said himself in his famous Cornerstone Speech: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” The Union, whose economy wasn’t dependent on slavery, wanted it abolished. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to slavery, in the 1860 presidential election war became inevitable.
The United States of America was ripped apart over the issue of slavery and continues to rip itself apart as the country struggles with its past. Race relations, debates, and protests over police reform since the tragic death of George Floyd dominate the news. Confederate monuments are toppling and so are other vestiges of the losing side. In fact, recently CNN ran a story about whether Confederate monuments should be taken down at Gettysburg. It struck me as I drove by The Peach Orchard and walked through Devil’s Den that there is still much unfinished business here.
An Underground Railroad Stop
Many Civil War stories are well known but Gettysburg sheds light on other details that make it a must-visit spot for African-Americans curious about their history. These stories put a spotlight on the enormous sufferings and contributions African-Americans have made to build the Country. And to tell you the truth, many of these stories are not universally known.
Besides Bryan Farm, I also wasn’t aware until just before my visit that when the Confederates invaded, free Black people were captured, re-enslaved and herded like animals back to the South. This threat is one reason why the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada, ran through Gettysburg. The Dobbin House Tavern (89 Steinwehr Avenue) is a restaurant and historical landmark that once served as a field hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, visitors can view a crawl space that served as a hiding place for runaway slaves as they made the perilous journey north. It was surreal eating a delicious dinner in a building where terrified freedom-seekers had to hide for their lives.
People interested in African-American history can also see historical markers around town. At the southeast corner of Franklin and High streets is a plaque that commemorates a speech made by abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Another marker at Lincoln Square tells the story of Francis Scott Key, who penned the poem that would become the National Anthem with the words, “Land of the Free.” Key came to Gettysburg in 1831 so his slave, Clem Johnson, could purchase his freedom. Johnson paid Key $5 to be a free man when he was 45 years old, 17 years after Key had penned the anthem. Speaking of irony, it’s somewhat twisted that a poet who had written “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a slave-holding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, who thanks to a system of human bondage had grown rich and powerful. His statue was recently pulled down by the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Lechak, the cemetery is one of the most important stops on the tour. The National Cemetery at Gettysburg is the final resting place for thousands of Union soldiers, including two veterans of the US Colored Troops, Henry Gooden and Charles H. Parker. There is also a memorial marking the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln reminded the crowd that all are created equal.
“I have 3,512 heroes,” said Lechak. “They are the soldiers buried in the Gettysburg Soldiers National Cemetery. The story of their courage, dedication, duty, and honor inspire me, and I want to share their inspiration with others.”
Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center is the best place to begin your visit. Visitors to the museum watch “A New Birth of Freedom”, narrated by Morgan Freeman and featuring Sam Waterson as the voice of Abraham Lincoln. This marvelous 20-minute film explains the politics that lead up to the Civil War, the mood of the country, and the events that preceded the clash of armies at Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Cyclorama is another popular stop at the museum. Originally displayed in 1884, this massive fully-restored, 360-degree painting places you in the middle of Pickett’s Charge on the decisive third day of the battle.
The museum features a display about abolitionist John Brown and his doomed raid on Harpers Ferry, as well as Fugitive Slave posters and shackles used to hold people of color. Other exhibits included cannons, a saw that was used for amputations, and faces of soldiers from both sides of the battle. Also be sure to visit the The Museum Bookstore. Besides having interesting maps and souvenirs the store also offers a wide array of books, CD’s, educational comics and cookbooks with authentic recipes from the period.
“The American Civil War did two things. First, it preserved our form of government – a Republic of all the states. Secondly, it removed the blight of Slavery. I believe that African Americans especially should visit this Field Of Honor and experience where men fought to preserve, “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” said Lechak.
African-Americans often point out that Black history isn’t represented equally in textbooks. But something beautiful happens when you make the effort to go out to historically important destinations like Gettysburg to seek context for yourself because sometimes that’s the only way you can really see and appreciate how the world was forged.
As America celebrates its 244th birthday in 2020 it’s important for African-Americans to know that Black lives have always played a major role in the story of the United States. And that matters.
MORE ABOUT GETTYSBURG
Destination Gettysburg: https://destinationgettysburg.com/
Visit Pennsylvania: https://www.visitpa.com/
Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center
Address: 1195 Baltimore Pike
Adults (ages 13+): $15
Seniors (65+) and Military Veterans: $14
Youth (ages 6-12): $10
Active Duty U.S. Military Personnel: Free